Monday, September 1, 2014

Those Who Can . . .

Good morning, Alice Valdal here.

  I just purchased another book on writing and that prompted me to examine my library.  I am the proud owner of twelve "how to" books on writing, and that doesn't count the books on grammar and style, or the sheaves of notes from workshops.
   Some books, such as Alice Orr's No More Rejections, and Alicia Rasley's The Character Interviews, and Laurie Schnebly's Believable Characters: Creating with Enneagrams I purchased at the end of a workshop.  All of these women are brilliant.  Listening to them discuss the art and craft of writing left me inspired and itching to get at my hands on a keyboard, my next -- and best selling novel -- would be born in just a few months, now that I'd learned "the secret."
   Other books I bought on recommendations from other writers.  The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them), by Jack Bickham was promoted by a fellow writer who claimed it had changed her writing and turned her from a "wannabe" into a contracted author.
    Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass was another recommended purchase.  And what writer worth her salt wouldn't want to learn from Donald Maass, even his recorded lectures inspire.  He makes it sound so straightforward and logical.  Get the right characters into the right kind of trouble, add a ticking clock and the possibility of a sequel and the writer needs an accountant to handle all the money she's bound to make.
     How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz, The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon and Creating Characters by Dwight V. Swain, I bought from a fellow writer who had given up finding a market for her books.  Some of the information in these books is dated, particularly when it comes to marketing, but the basic lessons on character, plot, structure and emotional impact are timeless.
    All the books mentioned above fall into what I would call craft.  I also have three volumes on what I call the art of being a writer, Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott,  The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, and my latest purchase, Seven Steps on the Writer's Path, by Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott.
    As I'm more of a pantser than a plotter, I turn to these latter books with a sense of relief.  Much as I love and use the craft books, much as they have to teach me, I sometimes feel they put me in a box that's too small and then push down on the lid.  But there is danger in the other books as well.  Julia Cameron wants me to go on "artist's dates" with myself.  I embrace the concept and can put off actually putting pen to paper for weeks, while I fill my soul with trips to the art gallery, the gardens, the beach, the lavender farm . . .  You get the picture.
    Ann Lamott encourages me to read and read and read.  Great advice and I'm happy to curl up on the couch or stretch out at the beach with a bag of books for company.  But at some point anyone who wants to be an author need's to put down her favourite reads, and actually write something of her own.
    Owning this wealth of advice and encouragement reminds me of the old saw "if you're so smart, why ain't you rich?"  Or, to put it in writer's parlance, "if you know so much, why aren't you a best selling author?"
     The answer is, of course, that there is no secret, no magical formula, no step-by-step process that will propel the hopeful author to stardom.  Writing fiction is both art and craft, each author brings his or her own life experiences, belief system, skill and dedication to the work.  Each writer is unique, and we create our own unique works.  Sometimes those stories resonate with millions of readers, other times they resonate only with the author.  Each of us must decide our own writing goals, our own process and our own vision.  
     I'm delighted with all my "how-to" books and I'm grateful to the authors who have generously shared their wisdom and their experience.  I salute authors everywhere who have slogged through the hard stuff and found success in the publishing world and I congratulate those who follow their writing dreams without the world's recognition.  
    Books enrich our lives, mirror our times, leave footprints in history and brighten the lives of millions and millions of readers.  
    So, what's your favourite "how-to" book?  Do you prefer books on the craft of writing or the philosophy of being a writer? Is there one missing from my library that I absolutely must have? :-)

Alice Valdal is the author of two historical romance novels, one contemporary romance novel and a collection of short Christmas stories.  She is a member of Vancouver Island Chapter of Romance Writer's of America and an avid collector of books on the art and science or writing.


  1. Exactly!!! Alice I have a huge 'How-To' section as well! And while each of them, on any given day, can get the blood flowing (and the fingers typing!), they can also fail on any day. I do love Donald Maass's book, and recently I have picked up the 'the Foundations of Screenwriting' by Syd Field (fascinating!) and I am halfway through Stephen King's book on writing. You made me laugh and feel less ashamed about owning more books ON writing than books having been written.

  2. Ah yes! Stephen King. I've read that one, but don't actually own it. I think you nailed it with "on any given day." That's my excuse for owning so many. Different books for different days. :-)

  3. Oh, boy, could I give you a list, but...yes, it's any given day. I personally learned tons from Bickham's Scene and Structure. Sol Stein On Writing is a great book for fiction and non-fiction writers alike.

  4. Some I haven't read there Alice. I also have several on the shelves and appreciate the input. One of my favourites is bird by bird but I'm also a huge fan of Madeleine L'Engle and Walking on Water, which reminds me of getting out of the way and listening to the story..

  5. Wow, that's some list of books on writing, Alice! Funnily enough, just this week, I scheduled my blog for 11th Sept on my most recent experience with reading through lots of books on the writing craft, where I discuss the 'downside' for me of such an exercise. So, while I learn a lot from them, I'd have to say I gravitate much more towards those on the philosophy and experience of writing. I LOVE 'The Artist's way' and 'Bird by Bird'--and also 'Walking on Water', as Dale does.

    1. I've never heard of "Walking on Water." Something new for me to check out. Thanks for the input, Dale and Jo-Anne.

  6. Alice, great post! GMC is a favourite of mine, plus Self Editing for Fiction Writers.